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What are UltraHD Premium TVs?

The UltraHD Premium TV standard was announced at the 2016 CES Show, but what does that mean? After years of pushing 4K and UltraHD at consumers, is UltraHD Premium yet another standard? If you’ve already bought an UltraHD TV, is it an UltraHD Premium TV or is this something that is already making your TV outdated? In many ways UltraHD Premium is what we’ve been waiting for once you understand what it is.

Better Pixels, not More Pixels

When UltraHD sets were first announced, I was vocal in telling people to not get too excited. After all, we had just gotten through a few years of 3D being pushed hard on us and in the end it turned out most people didn’t like watching TV with glasses on at home. With UltraHD you didn’t have to watch with glasses on, but it also was spreading the myth that more pixels meant a better image. What matters is the quality of the pixels, not the number.

Most TV reviewers loved, and still love, plasma TVs. Compared to LCDs they are heavier, don’t get as bright, use a lot more power and put out a lot more heat. They also have much smoother motion, better viewing angles, darker blacks, better shadow details, and larger contrast ratios. When compared to an LCD of the same resolution, we always put plasma on top because the pixels were better even if the counts were the same. When UltraHD started to appear, this still held true for us. An UltraHD display could be sharper if you sat close to the screen, but the pixels were still worse quality than plasma.

UltraHD Premium is a solution to this. It combines the extra resolution of UltraHD with more features that give you better pixels, not just more pixels. There are some key highlights of UltraHD Premium that make its pixels stand out from regular UltraHD sets:

What Are These Features?

The most important feature in UltraHD Premium sets to me is support for the P3 color gamut. A color gamut defines what colors a display can show you. For all the colors in the world that your eye can see, a TV can only show a smaller subset of those. Right now TV and movies at home are limited by the Rec.709/HDTV color gamut. If a color falls outside of this range, it has to come back in so your TV can show it to you.

Movies use a larger color gamut, called P3. When you go to a movie theater you’ll see shades on-screen that you can’t see at home. A great example once given to me is that the main character in Pixar’s Cars, Lightning McQueen, is a shade of red that falls outside of the Rec.709 standard. All the toys that kids own from Cars are a shade of red different than the movie is at home, because it wasn’t possible to show it on screen! On an UltraHD Premium set with an UltraHD Blu-ray, these colors can finally be seen at home. You might not realize you haven’t been seeing these colors before, but now you finally can.

10-bit panels give you four times the shades of each color than were possible with 8-bit ones. A common artifact you’ll see on Blu-ray movies is that a blue sky can be posterized, with visible bands in different shades of blue. Now instead of having 256 different levels of blue, you have 1024 and these banding artifacts can be a thing of the past.

10-bit panels also enable support for High Dynamic Range, or HDR. HDR on a TV is different than HDR on a camera in that it is about enabling brighter highlights more than anything else. On non-HDR TVs, the brightest white you can display on-screen is around 160 nits. This maximum value applies to everything, from a white sheet to the sun. With HDR, you have four times the peak values to select from, so while a white sheet might still be 160 nits, the sun can be 600-1,000 nits. This looks more like what we see in real life which is the ideal for a TV.

The UltraHD Premium specs list two different requirements for UltraHD Premium sets and HDR. One is for LCDs and requires a peak light output of 1,000 nits. The other is for OLED and only needs 540 nits. Since OLED has a black level that is 100 times darker than an LCD, it will still produce the same contrast ratios, or higher, that an HDR LCD will despite the lower light output. HDR is about improving the contrast ratio and both LCDs and OLEDs will do that.

What about my UltraHD set?

If you’ve bought an UltraHD set in the past few years, will it be an UltraHD Premium set? Probably not. One requirement is support for HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 and most TVs didn’t get that until 2015. Even on those that do have HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2, few support the expanded color gamut, HDR, and 10-bit panels.

The Samsung SUHD line gets close, but only the JS9500 hits 1000 nits on highlights. None of the LG OLEDs from 2015 hit the required 540 nits on HDR, so they aren’t supported either. The Vizio Reference Series from late 2015 might, but Vizio isn’t a member of the UHD Alliance and the R-Series doesn’t support the HDR10 format, only Dolby Vision. So if you bought an UltraHD TV before 2016 it likely won’t support UltraHD Premium.

UltraHD Premium Content

Of course if nothing supports UltraHD Premium features, then you won’t get to see them in action. UltraHD Blu-ray, which starts to ship on March 1st 2016, has support for all these features. Almost all these titles will feature UltraHD resolution (though sometimes upscaled), Wide Color Gamut, and High Dynamic Range content. You can find a  full list of features for titles in our UltraHD Blu-ray Title Database.

Netflix and Amazon plan to start streaming content that supports these features this year. Amazon is already streaming some HDR content, like the Golden Globe winning Mozart in the Jungle. M-Go is also streaming some of these future UltraHD Blu-ray titles already but it requires a Samsung TV and an external hard drive.

For TV content, we likely will be waiting longer. ATSC 3.0, the updated standard for over-the-air broadcasts, will allow for HDR and other features. LG was demonstrating it at CES this year but real world use is many years off at this point. Satellite and Cable companies could put in place UltraHD with Premium features sooner, but would need content providers to have support for it. This will get here, but it’s a bit off in the distance.

What Should You Buy Today?

Now that you can get an UltraHD Premium set, we have no issues recommending that you buy an UltraHD set. Last year we would have picked the LG 55EG9100 OLED as our favorite TV despite it being 1080p because it had better pixels than UltraHD sets for the same price. Even if you had bought a top-of-the-line display it wouldn’t reach the standard of an UltraHD Premium set. It might get close, but it won’t get there.

If you want to be ready for the future, then you should get an UltraHD Premium display. Since these are going to cost around $3,000 that is more than many people want to spend. In that case, I’d be more likely to get the best affordable set I could, knowing that UltraHD Premium displays will come down in price over the next few years. If I was buying something in 2016, I’m waiting to see the prices of the LG OLED B6 display that is UltraHD Premium certified. My Panasonic VT60 is still holding out well, but the allure of the wider color gamut and high dynamic range might be too much for me to resist.

The good thing is that now we know what the future standards are and what displays will be ready for it. And if you want to buy a new TV you know if it will be ready for UltraHD Premium content or not. Removing the uncertainty from the market makes it much easier to know if it is a good time to buy a TV or not. Now the only question is when will projectors catch up to TVs in support of this new content?

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